Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Implications of Boko Haram’s Pledge to the Islamic State Group

     Last Saturday, the brutally fierce Nigerian based Islamist militant group Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakr Shekau pledged fealty to the leader and self-proclaimed caliph of the equally brutal Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As several experts have already alluded, the writing was on the wall and there were clear indications of cooperation between these two groups especially regarding media operations. For many, this announcement merely marks a propaganda ploy for both groups as the Islamic State group has lost momentum following their defeat in Kobane, Syria, and Boko Haram’s loss of territory at the hands of combined regional military efforts from surrounding nations.

     It is quite possible that the Islamic State group could provide Boko Haram with resources and training as they have done in the past for other groups that have pledged fealty to the self-proclaimed caliph. As indicated in a report in the Daily Beast, the Islamic State group’s global model differs from that of al-Qaeda’s in that the Islamic State group is more flexible in accepting new groups and new members. Additionally, as many experts point out, the Islamic State group needs territory to maintain legitimacy, and so after groups pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State group, emissaries have been known to offer a “jihadi start-up kit.” There is reason to believe that this might have already occurred with Islamic State group members being dispatched to Nigeria to negotiate.

     This new direct line of support between Raqqa, Syria and Borno State, Nigeria, could prove dangerously threatening, though, as aptly noted by the Daily Beast and several other sources in the past, Boko Haram’s leader is erratic and considered to be a “psychopath.” “Shekau is also a control freak...That means he’s unlikely to allow micromanaging from ISIS leaders thousands of miles away,” the report stated using a separate acronym for the Islamic State group. Furthermore, the Washington Post quoted a U.S. intelligence official who stated, Boko Haram’s leader has “resisted any efforts to be subsumed under any other terrorist group’s leadership or command and control…Even if he said, ‘We’ll take your orders,’ he wouldn’t.” Boko Haram has accepted help wherever it has come in the past as well. While it enjoyed tactical relations and coordination with al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, the Nigerian based group never officially announced a pledge to al-Qaeda. Shekau’s erratic behavior exemplified by his declaration of a caliphate after a similar declaration in Iraq and Syria signals that the new alliance between two of the world’s most deadly Islamist groups might not bear the doom it may precede.

     However, the fact that Boko Haram pledged fealty (bayat in Arabic) to the Islamic State group, is an important distinction. A bayat is a binding religious oath that is taken very seriously among those in the Islamic world. In fact, according to some scholars, breaking a bayat can levy the penalty of death. In the vein of the recent rumors surrounding al-Qaeda’s official group in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra potentially considering leaving their parent organization and embarking under a new banner, they would have to declare al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri un-Islamic in order to break their oath or bayat previously pledged. Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden especially regarded oaths as a sacred undertaking. According to the report released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center on the documents released by the U.S. government from the bin Laden raid at his Abbottabad, Pakistan safe house, bin Laden wished that those who attacked the U.S. did not possess U.S. passports or citizenship because to become a U.S. citizen, one must swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Bin Laden “wanted to promote the image that jihadis are disciplined and conform to Islamic Law.” In Shekau’s audio message, he pledged to “hear and obey [the self-proclaimed caliph] in times of difficulty and prosperity…and not to dispute about rule with those in power.”  While Shekau has previously played by his own rules, breaking this oath could hurt his credibility, though, it's not entirely sure that totally matters to him or his goals.

     The fealty pledge of Boko Haram to the Islamic State group is viewed by many as simply hot air.  Time will tell what heightened coordination and resources the pledge will bring and what, if any, gains each group reaps from it.

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